Women in the kitchen

With gruelling hours, sniping colleagues and testosterone laced atmospheres, the food and drink industry is one of Germany’s most misogynous. The few women who’ve made it don’t have time to discuss gender equality – they just do it.

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Photo by Alyona Baranova


How Ulrike Piwonka embraced her family destiny and became Berlin’s youngest-ever master butcher.

You may have seen women behind the counters of Berlin’s butcher shops, but they’re usually not the ones chopping up the meat. Instead, they’re Fleischverkäuferinnen, meat sellers. That’s what Piwonka’s mother and grandmother did for a living. And when the young Berliner had to give up her dream of becoming a policewoman (at 158cm, she was just too short), that’s what she began to do as well.

Surprisingly, what started as a backup career blossomed into a real passion for meat. “At first I never wanted to deal with the cold and the smell. But I realised it’s about taking a raw product and turning it into something beautiful and refined.” She decided to go a step further, enrolling to become a Fleischmeisterin (female master butcher) – the first in her family, and one of only a handful in Germany. During her apprenticeship at Neukölln’s venerated Blutwurstmanufaktur, she realised she faced a greater challenge than her mother ever did. “All my classmates were male, and I’d overhear them saying ‘She doesn’t belong here. This is a place for men’,” recalls Piwonka. “I even remember them withholding information from me so I couldn’t complete one of our assignments. That really annoyed me.” She didn’t let that stop her from acing her Meister exams in 2012 at just 23, a feat that gained her attention from the press: the youngest master butcher in Berlin, and a girl at that! “She’s even better at meat processing than a few of my male employees,” her mentor Marcus Benser dubiously boasted to Deutsche Handwerks Zeitung.

I’ve heard women say they can’t be butchers because they’ll tear their ligaments if they haul more than 10 kilos. I asked a doctor, and it turns out it’s a myth.

Before long, she left Blutwurstmanufaktur for the Berliner Fleischerfachschule in Moabit, where she teaches vocational courses in butchering and selling meat as well as one-off sausage workshops. “I started teaching because the job is becoming extinct,” says the 28-year-old. “I want the younger generation to finally see how truly fascinating this job is.” Her fellow teacher, Josephine Engel, is also a Fleischmeisterin, but within their classes the gender balance remains the same as ever: the women study to be meat sellers, the men to be butchers. “I’ve heard women say they can’t be butchers because they’ll tear their ligaments if they haul more than 10 kilos. I actually asked a doctor, and it turns out it’s a myth that many women believe for some reason.”

Piwonka’s mother still works in a butcher shop in Brandenburg, and the two frequently call to exchange notes. “I’ll ask her for advice sometimes, but mostly she comes to me with questions that customers have asked her about the meat – especially when it comes to sausage production.” And if she has children herself? “I don’t necessarily want them to become butchers, but I do want them to have experience in a hands-on profession. As the German saying goes, ‘First with the hands, then with the head’.” –AC

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Berlin’s craft beer scene is still a boy’s club, but Veronica Menzel thinks that’s about to change.

As a flight attendant for Air Berlin and Brazil’s TAM Airlines, what Menzel looked forward to the most when setting foot in a new country was trying the beer. She’d fallen in love with German brews in Cologne, at age 21. “Brazilian beer was mostly light, flavourless and a bit boring… traditional German beers like Alt, Kölsch and Weizen were so much better.” And so it wasn’t entirely out of the blue that a few years later, the longtime hophead began to take some steps into brewing herself – first reading books about it, then doing some home brew trials, then undertaking a six-month part-time apprenticeship at Freising Bier Brewery, a tiny brewpub near her hometown of Campinos. Her mentor, Glaucia Puccinelli Monte, had trained as a Braumeisterin in Bavaria. “Learning from a woman who was in charge of a brewery – it was a big inspiration,” says Menzel. In 2010, she quit her job, sold her car and all her furniture, and moved to Berlin to undertake the prestigious Certified Brewmaster course at brewing school VLB.

She’s now in the same position as her former mentor, on a bigger scale. She joined local craft beer company Brlo in 2016, as they were preparing to expand into a massive new brewery/biergarten at Gleisdreieck. As part of a seven-person brewing team, she develops new recipes and tests them on Brlo’s stateof- the-art machinery. “And I keep things organised… the boys can be very messy!” she laughs. Her signature creation is a chilli-spiked red ale named “Brazilian Blowout”.

I had to show my business card for them to realise that I was a ‘real’ brewmaster.

Menzel is aware she’s in a rare position among female brewers. Even among the young, international craft beer scene, which she describes as “very open”, there are only about 10 active women, of whom she’s by far the most high-profile (most others, like Ulrike Genz of Pankow’s Schneeeule, work on a small-batch basis). Menzel recalls attending a craft beer festival in Barcelona with a male colleague who was “more into sales and events, but everyone only wanted to talk to him. I had to show my business card for them to realise that I was a ‘real’ brewmaster.”

Nevertheless, Menzel is optimistic that the situation is “changing, slowly”. At Brlo, her gender is mostly an asset. When she gives brewery tours, she says, “people are happy to have a girl from Brazil – it’s a nice story.” –FE

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For Sonja Frühsammer, two kids and two marriages didn’t get in the way of becoming Berlin’s first and only starred female chef.

If “a woman’s place is in the kitchen”, then where are all the female chefs? Not in Germany, where only nine out of 300 Michelin-starred restaurants are helmed by women. Just one of those is in Berlin, and most trendy foodies here haven’t even heard of it: Frühsammers, the white-tableclothed restaurant attached to the ritzy Grunewald Tennis Club. Here, Sonja Frühsammer serves Asian-influenced “modern European” multi-course meals to well-heeled West Berliners, as well as tourists drawn by the Michelin star the restaurant netted in 2014.

“Women think that working in a kitchen takes away time from your family – do I want a bambino or a job? – which doesn’t have to be true.”

Frühsammer isn’t sure why so few other women have found success in Germany’s fine dining sphere. “I think it’s because of childcare issues,” muses the Australian-born, West Berlin-raised 48-year-old. “Women think that working in a kitchen takes away time from your family – do I want a bambino or a job? – which doesn’t have to be true.”

She became pregnant in 1994, two years into her training at Charlottenburg fine dining restaurant Alt-Luxemburg. She began working there after graduating from the Brillat Savarin von Meinem culinary school, where she was one of only “three or four” women in her 25-student class. And the athletic Frühsammer stayed there, chopping, stirring and hauling, until just six weeks before childbirth. “It was a little bit crazy.”

Making time to raise her two bambinos, Frühsammer turned to catering, where she could still cook for a living while working less punishing hours. It’s a common solution for female chefs, she points out. “Guys’ attitudes are ‘I want it, I want it’, whereas women are more concerned with looking after others.”

She returned to the fine dining fold in 2007 along with her second husband Peter, a Michelin-starred chef himself. Together, they took over the Grunewald restaurant, with Sonja in the kitchen and Peter assuming the position of sommelier. Despite Frühsammer’s autonomy with the menu – the most her husband can do is try her dishes – they were automatically lauded as a “restaurant power couple”, and seldom interviewed separately. Today, Frühsammer says, critics still find it hard to separate her work from her gender. “Some have said, ‘I can see on the plate that this is cooked by a woman.’” Which she has no choice but to take as a compliment. “But I hope that one day it won’t matter if a woman or a man is cooking.”

So what does the future look like for the gastronomical gender imbalance? Frühsammer dreams that hearing the names of starred female chefs will one day be a normality. And with the slow but steady progress of women’s names filling up the pages of the Michelin Guide, equality is on the menu. –ED